Monthly Archives: November 2014

wrongways

Wrong Ways Down: True Thing

Writing fictions from a dude’s point of view after a long series of books written from the woman’s is a very difficult thing to pull off. The most famous example is probably Midnight Sun, which was to be Stephenie Meyer’s Twilightwritten from the point of view of vampire love interest Edward Cullen. Twelve chapters in, someone leaked the manuscript, and Meyer quit writing it, saying, “If I tried to write Midnight Sun now, in my current frame of mind, James would probably win and all the Cullens would die, which wouldn’t dovetail too well with the original story.” (Honestly, I think this alt-history Twilight sounds amazing, but ymmv.) Like when writing a sequel, the writer is constrained by a timeline of events that are inviolate (or fucking should be, George Lucas), and cannot strike out in new territory (such as murdering all the Cullens, or having Anakin meet his step-brother Owen for like 15 minutes even though Owen said out loud that he’s had a much longer and more fractious relationship than talking to Anakin once after Anakin committed genocide). (Not that I’m bitter.)

So it was something of a surprise to me that I enjoyed Wrong Ways Down as much as did. Wrong Ways Down by Stacia Kane is from the point of view of Terrible, sometimes partner and sometimes love interest of Chess Putnam, who is the principle of five (and counting) books in the Downside Ghost series. The series takes place in an alt-history where murderous ghosts rose up and killed roughly half the population of the planet in 1997. I could get into the exact backstory, but it’s not necessary, given that the books themselves aren’t too fussed about history. Chess is a junkie with a respectable job; Terrible works for her dealer as a knee-breaker; they both inhabit the wrong side of town called Downside.

Wrong Ways Down occurs somewhen between the first book in the second, and is written mostly in the Downside patois Kane invented for the neighborhood. Being the other reasons this book could fail, or could fail to hook readers. I myself like the street lingo of Downside because it manages to run a local idiom without being racist or relying too heavily on eye dialect. But I know this kind of stylistic choice can be difficult for people. I was just recently reading a book that spelled the word blood “blud”, which made me snort a little. Like spelling magic “magick” or fairy “fairie” (with apologies to Spenser), these are stylistic choices that can rankle readers inordinately. The occasional snort aside, I do not think these choices are errors. I, personally, think flipping out about punctuation choices in, say, The Road, is pedantry, but then I also know that the heart wants what it wants. Sometimes it wants capital letters, I guess.

But all this sort of positioning shit aside, the real reason I liked Wrong Ways Down was that it didn’t diminish Terrible, relegating him to a bit player or an appendage in his own story, nor did it put all kinds of psychosis in his head, because sociopaths are rrrrrromantic. There are a lot of dude-perspective fictions — like Midnight Sun, or that short story by Moning from Barrons’ point of view, or Walking Disaster – which run the thought processes of their heroes like serial killers. Admittedly, a lot of these dudes looked like serial killers from the woman’s point of view, but as the old saw goes, better to remain silent and be thought a serial killer than to speak out and remove all doubt.

We know Terrible is a leg-breaker and enforcer — this is not a surprise — just like we know Chess is a fuckup and a junkie. How does he rationalize his own cruelty? What does he get out of violence? What does he think about Chess’s addictions? What does he do when he’s aloneWrong Ways Down addresses these sorts of questions, which I find incredibly satisfying. Much more satisfying than serial killer sociopaths growling about how the love interest lady is MINE ALL MINE and obsessing in the most rote way possible. I do not want hair-smelling scenes; gross. Sure, there’s something inert about fictions between this thing and that, which are constrained and cannot truly surprise. But sometimes the interstitial can be an exploration, a character study, a story from someone you thought you knew but didn’t. I thought Wrong Ways Down was pretty fucking deft, true thing.

soma

Built Ford Tough: Brave New World

I have this little theory — a “little theory” being one of those half-assed ideas one has that won’t stand up to scrutiny — that a person can have either a Macbeth English major or a Hamlet English major. I myself had theMacbeth kind, having read the Scottish play three times for various classes during undergrad, and never once Hamlet. (In fact, I have never read Hamlet, though I’ve seen it maybe a dozen times.) That Macbeth was the thing when I was in school says something about the pulse of that moment in time. Maybe it’s too histrionic to see something in my profs choosing the Macbeths and their overreaching pas de deux over Hamlet’s leaderly meltdown during the Clinton era, but then again, maybe not.This little theory falls apart once I factor in the twice-read Tempest or King Lear– it’s silly to decant ones formative Shakespeare into two plays, and then roshambo — but like all little theories, I do cleave to it inordinately.

To stretch this little theory a bit, I see this kind of small theoretical split in a bunch of sub-genres: The Yearling or Old Yeller, in the dead animal department; Monty Python or Hitchhiker’s Guide, in ye 70s British humor department; and for the purposes of this essay, 1984 or Brave New World in your classic dystopia department. People tend to have read one or the other, and if both are read, the one you encountered earliest is the one you prefer. I had a 1984 childhood, finishing that book on a bus back from a school trip to Quebec, and feeling that bullet right in my brain. It’s entirely possible that I would feel the same way about Brave New World if I’d read it at the time — the adolescent brain being what it is — but I didn’t. Instead, Huxley’s classic had to contend with dreary old me, a me that couldn’t ever get a leg over. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy many facets of Brave New World, but just that much of my enjoyment was at arm’s length — ironic, critical, or historical — and not in the moment of narrative. It was worth reading to be read, and not in the reading of it. Ah, my lost youth.

I was honestly surprised at how science fictional the opening was. There’s a whole lot of technobabble and der blinken lights, mouthpiece characters yammering on about how the axlotl tanks work and embryonic division and sleep hypnosis and the like. I feel like — and this could be certainly another “little theory”, but bear with me — contemporary literary fiction tends to avoid hard science trappings, lest one get genre cooties all over one’s magnum opus (cf. The Road, Zone One, et al.) Huxley’s got no squeamishness about that, and his future has the hard patina of 30s futurism, all aeronautics and chemistry. I was recently regaling a friend about Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum”, and its elucidation of the semiotic phantom of  “American streamline Moderne” that gets the story’s narrator so twitterpated. Which, whoa.

The future of the past is a detritus we all live with — in our nostalgia and anxiety dreams — and it’s odd to see such an early one, such an embryonic one: 1932, before the Great War that informed 1984, before any of the other condensed catastrophes of the world we inhabit now. I found the way Huxley is taking aim at American consumerism — the social engineers are called “Fords”, and there are a variety of almost funny jokes about this — and Soviet authoritarianism — Lenina is our almost heroine — just touching. I can’t imagine a contemporary writer cutting these two things together; they’ve been too solidly set as a dialectic in the interregnum. Plus, none of these things mean the same anymore anyway. I mean, the first Stalinist purges had just happened a few years before Brave New World, but these early purges didn’t involve arrest and death like they would later, starting with the Great Purge of 1936. They were ideological litmus tests, sure, but Stalin had not yet begun to dream of the gulag and all the other nightmares that have since been associated with (at least) Soviet communist. And Ford had not yet begun collaborating with the fucking Nazis, because the Brownshirts were still just vigilante skinheads. Anyway.

The part that made me lose my shit was when our cheerful fordians spend a weekend in the “human reservation” somewhere in the American southwest, probably Arizona, which is peopled with folk who look a lot like the Pueblo people of the American Southwest. Americans certainly have a kinky view of the native peoples of North America: in historical contexts, there’s this spiritual largess afforded conquered people, and in modern ones, an irritation that aboriginal Americans continue to exist. Why do you still keep making claims to shit we legit conquered you for, noble savage? It’s not dissimilar to a British view of colonial artifacts: certainly the Greeks cannot be trusted to caretake the Elgin Parthenon Marbles. Huxley’s description of the reservation hews to this, with an irritation towards pagan “superstition” and general backwardsness, married to a strange in-the-reverse satire of sterile “progress”.

The story of John the Savage — the Englishman born in the reservation — ends up being this completely bananas expression of an inherent Englishness. Though born into the community, he somehow has problems with the language and never quite fits in. (Though, admittedly, some of this is his mom being the town drunk and whore, if you’ll excuse the expression.) I’ve known a lot of children of immigrants, and they know English as well as I; it’s their first language too. He’s given the collected works of Shakespeare at some point, and, like Frankenstein’s monster lurking at the edges of English society, somehow manages to divine the history of Christianity, all the trappings of traditional gender roles, and Romantic love. Which he then hews to when confronted by fordian society, like British culture is something that can be activated by a book, regardless of where you were raised. At least given the right blood quantum, to filch nomenclature from the American reservation.

It’s a trip watching John freak out when the woman he’s decided to courtly love propositions him sexually: omg, good girls don’t even do that!! Casual sex is super bad for you!! I get the impression I’m supposed to agree, and put in context of the fordian society which constantly describes women as “pneumatic” I kinda do, but I really don’t. It’s a false binary: harsh traditionalism or completely freewheeling sluttery. I’m not even going to go into all the feminist virgin/whore stuff, and you are welcome to fill it in yourself. Suffice it to say when John meets his inevitable end [uh, spoiler, except not really, because we can all see where this is going] in a welter of OH DO YOU SEE, I couldn’t do much more than laugh cynically. I was happy just to be done with all the fucking speachifying that typifies the end, good Lord.

I’m just going to note here, briefly, that the racial categories in the fordian society are completely fucked. While there are moments when I felt this was meant satirically, there are at least as many, if not more, where I felt it was not. Emphatically.

So. Strange New World is a trip, and I recommend a pass at it if you’re into the history of science fiction or the social satire, or where those two things connect, but I’ve gotta say it’s not aging too well. While I appreciate the ways Huxley anticipated the soporific effects of media on labor — and, weirdly, the horror of the paparazzi — his satire is bound by the rules of the day, as all satire is. That’s the sad thing about satire, which bites best when it’s specific, situated, in the moment, but then the moment moves on and it’s left as a relic, a joke that has to be explained to get the punchline. Same goes for horror and comedy, which says something about all of them.

dinosaur

In Retrospect, Like Meaning

I was on the back porch smoking when it occurred to me to check the date of my account deletion. It has to have been a year, I thought, because it wasn’t so long ago that my sister texted me on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. I read it out to my kids, because my son heard my weird exhalation and wondered why. They like to shoulder-surf me. They like to know why I respond like I do to screen ephemera.

Several weeks ago, I was weeping, loud, curled like a corpse. Or no, that’s not right: corpses arch, which is why fossils of dinosaurs always have their long necks stretched back. I was weeping like a woman has been suffering from “minor major depression” for as long as she can remember, which is about two years, maybe more, maybe it’s all roots and memories that stretch back as long as I can remember. That’s the thing about depression: it’s virulent and metastasizes, and all your cells bend to it eventually. All of me was bent.

When I rolled over, I saw her there, a shadow, my daughter, watching me from the doorway. The worst thing in all of this has been figuring how to talk to these beautiful, difficult children I’ve created about how sick I am, and how that is not their fault or responsibility. I remember being this age, and how, even at eight, I would bottle and stopper my emotions because, even then, I was afraid of being stupid or embarrassing. I still feel like I’m stupid or embarrassing most of the time. I wish there was a time when I could feel like a grown up, not this gangly impostor who cannot fit in the children’s chairs at parent-teacher conferences.

She came and laid herself across my body, hip to hip, her head on my chest. I figured how to quiet myself, but I could feel the tears roll down the sides of my skull and into my hair. I talked to her about myself, about my depression. She wants to know if this is something she can catch, which made me pause for a long while. I can see me in them both, my children, good things and bad, all the genetic comeuppance we joke about. No, I said, but this isn’t strictly true.

Later that week, she’ll ask me to go to a website with some silly signs — the kind that are mostly photoshopped — that we’d looked at some time in the last month. When I ask her why, she says it’s because she wants to see me happy, and she thought I was happy the last time we looked at these together. This kills me. Happiness is such an ephemeral quality, seen out of the side of the eye, like stars, or in retrospect, like meaning.

So, a year and a day ago I deleted my Goodreads account, two weeks after my grandmother’s death, in the long fallow darkness of a depression that only got worse. I have doubted that decision — I’m not going to lie — but not much. I know it was a misstep in some ways, but, as I said at the time, my reasons were mostly personal, and had very little to do with whatever the fuck bullshit was going on on this site. But there were missteps, unkindnesses that I was responsible for, maybe even cruelty. This kills me too.

Early in my therapy, I was ordered to stop apologizing, to stop assuming I was the one always at fault because I am the one who is always the worst. A part of me still thinks this is true, but I’ve mostly pinned her down, hip to hip, my head on her chest, my tears rolling down her face. I am not clear-eyed; I know this. But I still want to offer, at the very least, an explanation of my abrupt ending out here in the ‘verse. I was suffering from grief and depression, and I needed to cut myself off. I needed to stop. I did.

I said to my husband, in all the rictus of my coming to understand my illness, that my life felt like a limb that had fallen asleep, and was now coming to life. It hurts. It’s pins and needles all the time, and then bubbles, and then I can slowly put weight on it. I’m putting weight on it here, but it’s a dangerous, broken act.

I broke my foot this year too, like an asshole, kicking the edge of storm window leaned up in the back hall. Jesus, what a numbly stupid metaphorics. I could see the break, in the ghostly x-ray, and it was all frustration to clump around in an orthopedic boot. At night, in the dark, I would walk with a roll on the edge of my foot to protect my brokenness. Numb, dumb metaphors, they are everywhere.

One of my reawakening limbs has been writing again, because I cut that off a year ago with so much else. It’s taken me a long while to decide that writing wasn’t a problem — that it helped me more than it hurt — but it’s been hard to disentangle shit that’s bad for me from shit that’s good. I’m still iffy on whether this is good for me to write in this specific place, but I do want to perfectly and exactly apologize, in the capacity I can, for any I hurt I may have caused, and this is the place for it.

The really fucked thing about this declension of my brokenness is that I still haven’t come clean to many of my friends and family about the…about all of this. God, it’s so hard trying to be a person again, and even this may be wrong-footing my long process of recovering. Whatever, I guess. Every confession is a lightening. All words are stones on the ground. We’ll see if these words remain past a morning’s reconsideration.